A Timely Reminder to my Brothers and Sisters

The following is a list of people and organizations who do NOT speak for God:

President Donald Trump
Colin Kaepernick
Rush Limbaugh
Hilary Clinton
The United States government
The NFL
The Republican party
The Democrat party
The NRA
Black Lives Matter
Fox News
CNN
NPR

 

Here is a list of people who have, in fact, spoken for God:

The prophet Moses:
“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.  He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.  Love the alien, therefore, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

The prophet Isaiah:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the straps of the yoke,
To let the oppressed go free,
And to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover him,
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
And your healing shall spring up speedily;
Your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger,
And speaking wickedness,
If you pour yourself out for the hungry
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then shall your light rise in the darkness
And your gloom be as the noonday.”  (Isaiah  58:6-10)

The apostle Peter:
“Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.”  (Acts 10:34-35)

Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.  Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.  For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.  Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.  Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.”  (I Peter 2:13-17)

The apostle Paul:
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:27-28)

“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man with its practices and have put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his creator.  Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”  (Colossians 3:8-11)

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead.”  (Acts 17:30-31)

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” (Romans 13:1-5  )

The apostle John:
Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.  By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.  But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?  Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”  (I John 3:15-18)

“And when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.  And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’”  (Revelation 5:8-10)

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”  (Revelation 7:9-10)

The Lord Jesus Christ:
“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors.  But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”  (Luke 22:25-26)

“Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)

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Spending the Equinox with Piper

Happy Autumn Equinox!

About seven weeks ago, I wrote in a question to the “Ask Pastor John” podcast at Desiring God.

Today, it’s the featured question:  http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-does-it-mean-to-abide-in-christ

What’s funny is that in the transcription that they include on the page, they misspelled my name two different ways.
First, it says, “Kasey,” which is actually how I spelled my name from kindergarten through 8th grade.  (There’s a boring little story behind that.)
Then they have it as “Casey,” which has never been my name.  The first one is right at the beginning; the second is at the start of the section titled “Can We lose Our Salvation?”
Here’s my guess as to how it happened:
There is some transcriptionist at DG who did not have a copy of my actual full email message (where I signed my name clearly as “KC”).  They asked, “How is that name spelled?  With a K, or with a C?”  And somehow, after getting the answer “both,” was still confused and decided to spell it each of these two ways.  They must have figured that they would get it right at least once that way.  But as it turns out…   🙂

Anyway, I am thrilled to think through the various aspects of John Piper’s response.
If you have a chance to listen or read, may the Lord bless you with it!

Sh’lom!

Don’t Be an Idiot!

Ever been called an idiot?  Ever called someone else an idiot?
Do you actually know what that means?  If not, your use of the term may be rather ironic.

Check out these Greek words:

“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).

The first of these two descriptive terms is the adjective agrammatos, literally, “unlettered.”  The second is the noun idiōtēs (pronounced id-ee-OH-tace), the fourth of the five terms listed in the box above.  Yes, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem saw Peter and John as idiots, unlearned men.  But they had been with Jesus and, therefore, had a biblical and theological education far beyond anyone in the history of the Sanhedrin.  Whatever else they may have been, they were emphatically not idiots.

The basic idea in the idio— root is that of “one’s own.”  This comes out clearly when we speak of someone’s idiosyncrasies, that is, the peculiar characteristics, habits, or manners that are their own.

The idiot, it turns out, is someone who has not benefited from the wisdom and knowledge of others and has only his own with which to work.  In antiquity it was a word to describe someone who was uneducated in general or untrained in a given area.  This is its use in Acts 4:13, which is shaded from the author Luke’s perspective in a basic way and from the perspective of the Jewish leaders in a more pejorative way.

Clearly, an idiot is not something one would aspire to be.  Yet many people manage to achieve it.

“How I have hated instruction,
And my heart spurned correction!
I have not listened to the voice of my teachers,
Nor inclined my ear to my instructors!”  (Prov. 5:11-12)

Like this fool, many people are going through life armed only with whatever intellectual and sapiential powers they can muster from within themselves.  Rather than learn from others, they must do all their thinking and learning and opinion-forming on their own.  In other words, they are idiots.

In fact, we have now become a society of idiots.  One can easily picture here a jokey meme of the Osment character from “The Sixth Sense” saying, “I see idiotic people walking around like normal people.  They don’t know they’re idiots.”

It is an everyday phenomenon to see man-on-the-street interviews in which a TV news reporter sticks a microphone in the face of some idiot to ask him or her what he or she thinks on practically any issue under the sun.  Often it is clear that the person has never before put a moment’s thought into the idea under consideration.  But that doesn’t matter.  All that matters is he or she has a voice.

This is why we must pay careful attention to the “I think” language of ourselves and others.  Sometimes it is appropriate to begin a sentence with “I think.”  Many times, however, the need to begin that way may betray the fact that we probably do not know enough to comment intelligently and should perhaps refrain from the attempt.

Nowadays, it is common to hear people thinking out loud for the first time about something but doing so with utter boldness and a shocking lack of embarrassment.  They have a brain and a mouth and a whole bunch of “rights” to free thought and speech, et cetera; and this, it seems, qualifies them to weigh in on practically anything.  “I think…”  And off they go.

Yet there is a semi-conscious awareness of many people under, say, the age of thirty that neither they nor their peers are generally qualified to opine about most things.  This awareness does not deter them from doing so, but it is there nonetheless.  You can hear it in the new popular formula for introducing one’s idiotic thoughts: “I feel like…” or “I mean, I feel like…”  Many sentences are now begun with these words, sentences which are not meant to convey feelings at all, but rather opinions:  “I feel like the press has pushed this Trump-Russia thing for long enough.  I mean, I feel like it’s time to move on.”

Sometimes people even use this rhetorical formula to introduce statements of ostensible fact.  “I feel like Oslo is the capital of Norway.”  This always freaks me out a little.

And, of course, what troubles me is that we are now getting to hear from idiot theologians in the church.  “I think my relationship with God is between Him and me.”
“I mean, I feel like it’s all about relationships.”  And so on.

How often do you find yourself responding to questions and concepts of theological significance with the language of “I think”?  If I’m honest, I must admit I do it too much.  At the very least, there are numerous times when my contribution should be either a sentence that begins “Scripture says…” or just silence; but instead, I say, “Well, I think…”  And off I go.

[Sighhhhhhhhhhhhh…]
Lord, save me from the wisdom of idiots!…  Including the one I too often am.

Some Thoughts on Christian(?) Divorce

I have been asked to answer the question, ‘How does the church deal with marriages moving to divorce?’

A Ton of Preventionhosea-and-gomer
The first thing to say is that marriage should be handled more biblically and less Americanly from the start.  This would vastly reduce the phenomenon of “marriages moving to divorce.”  But it implies a more biblical and less American understanding and practice of the church itself, one in which Christians are committed to the local church more deeply than they are to any other social group in their lives, including their blood relatives.  And this is difficult to foster in modernity in the West.  Yet it must be done.

Romantic/sexual/marital love has been privatized and secularized—which is to say it has been dis-ecclesialized.  Where it is understood that a Christian marriage is the not the private property of the couple and that the elders and others of their church have a proper claim to involvement in it, there is early detection of the things that bring death to marriages.  In such a context, mistreatment between spouses will be under the discipline and loving correction of the church while the marriage is merely sick so that it will not as easily end up in the throes of death.

As a vital part of this ministry to marriages, it must be taught and rehearsed often in the church that marriage is not a means of personal happiness or fulfillment, but rather a school of sanctification into which some believers have been called.  It is not a place where we go to find ourselves, but to lose ourselves and to receive ourselves anew.  It is full of pain and death of the kind to which followers of Jesus are called (Phil. 2:1-11).  But no one—no couple—is called to walk this road alone.  Instead, we are called to walk it together in the church in the power and grace of the Spirit of Christ.

Dealing with Reality
Nevertheless, it remains true that we live in a world where evil sometimes is able to take up an entrenched existence in the human heart to such a degree that the realities of marital dissolution, even if reduced to great extent, will probably always be something with which we must deal in the church.  Thus, it is worthwhile for the church to consider its way of dealing with marital disintegration.  For two reasons, it is probably not the best idea to set forth a specific policy.  First, policies have a way of inviting test cases, or at least a view of legitimacy of that which they address.  Second, each marital situation is unique, and the complexity of a policy which would adequately address all the various minutiae would make it unmanageable.

Thus, the church should take as a single rule that all considerations of divorce should be addressed to phenomena of abuse.  Abuse here is broadly defined as the harmful, objectifying treatment of one human being by another such that free forgiveness cannot be the only response.  As such, we can see that abuse is a property of many different kinds of relationships, not just marriage.  But most non-marital relationships may be dissolved without the level or kind of scandal before heaven and earth that is divorce.  So the understanding and handling of abuse in the context of marriage is on a much higher plane of importance.

Every day, human beings fail to love each other in Christ.  Thus, harmful, objectifying treatment occurs all the time.  In terms of our discussion here, it is abusive when it is simply impossible (not just difficult) merely to forgive the sin and leave it at that.  Factors such as a refusal to repent or ongoing danger of serious harm may be present.  In such cases, it may be necessary to bring to bear on the relationship measures which protect a victim or which force a perpetrator from his or her settled position.

With this understanding, then, we can see that the presence of abuse does not necessarily entail the dissolution of the relationship, whether marital or whatever kind.  In dealing with endangered marriages, the elders and pastoral counselors of the couple can examine the nature, level and degree of the abuse present in the relationship.  And they can do so with a constant application of the brakes so as to keep divorce out of the picture until it absolutely must be allowed a place in it.  In this way, there are numerous other steps which may be taken before divorce is even allowed in view.  For example, in a case of physical abuse, physical separation may be necessary for an indefinite period, but it is possible that divorce may be kept out of the picture.  And God may bring full restoration through the ministry of the church.  In many cases, less drastic levels of church discipline may be sufficient.

It is more likely that the need to allow divorce into the picture will arise in the context of spiritual and emotional abuse where the spiritual toxicity threatens the very life of the spouse and/or children (usually in the form of depression or other kinds of spiritual ruin).  This is precisely because of the ability of such abusers to deceive themselves and thereby resist the need to change.

In some cases, it may only be the reality of divorce that is able to shake such people from their self-deceptions.  And this might happen at different points: when divorce is decided upon by the spouse they have abused, when the papers have been filed, when the divorce is final, or maybe a few years down the road when the realization of all that he or she has lost and the realities of the horrors he or she put the spouse through finally dawns on the abuser.  And of course, it is possible that the abuser may finish life on earth stubbornly hanging on to his or her delusions like most of the characters in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

Whether divorce is or is not to be allowed into the picture should be the decision of the elders; the abused spouse must follow their lead as they serve under the Lord.  Whatever the actual outcome, it is important that both the church leadership and the abused spouse only make movements toward divorce with the goal of restoration always in view.  In the most extreme of cases, a spouse may need to leave and, because it is necessary for their sanity, do so with a finality of mind.

Perhaps all this sounds rather like a policy, which we said above should be avoided.  In the sense that it provides a basis for approaching endangered marriage and the possibility of divorce, it might be called a policy, but it intentionally eschews the clear categorizations and flow-charts of contingencies that usually characterize policies.

How Biblical is All of This?
In Matthew 5:32, the Lord Jesus seems to allow for divorce on the one ground of sexual immorality (porneia).  Upon close inspection, however, it appears that what He actually says is that any man who divorces his wife on any ground other than this forces her to commit adultery.  The truth is, while the Bible is keenly aware of the reality of divorce, it never gives any clear permission for it.

Anyone who reads the Prophets knows that God certainly understands how divorce can seem to be the only viable option when dealing with recalcitrant sinners.  Debate continues as to whether YHWH actually divorced Israel or merely filed for separation for a while to wake her up.  But there can be no doubt that He understands that it is sometimes necessary to let the possibility of divorce enter the picture.

Can we use the example of YHWH’s dealings with Israel as a guide to allowing divorce into the picture of endangered marriages?  Before answering in the affirmative, we must take note of two differences between God and ourselves.  First, there is the goodness gap.  The most innocent human spouse of the most horrible human abuser is much closer to that abuser in goodness than any of us is to God.  Israel was unfaithful to an infinitely good Husband.  We must keep this clearly in mind.  The second difference, however, is the power gap.  God is also infinitely stronger than any of us.  So it is that, while he was genuinely injured by Israel’s sin, He was not in danger of being destroyed by it.  The human spouse of a human abuser simply may not have the strength to withstand the onslaught of abuse.  It may actually lead to his or her destruction.  And this may occasion a broken-hearted movement toward separation.

But lest anyone be tempted rashly to take comfort in the thought that he or she is following God’s example in approaching or enacting divorce, we must hasten to remind ourselves—again—that we are not God.  We do not have His wisdom.  We do not know very well how to use the power of righteous anger and righteous battle to love a stubbornly sinful heart.  We do not have the divine strength needed to bring the awfulness of divorce to bear on a relationship while never wavering in a perfect commitment always to desire full reconciliation.  So an abused spouse, following the lead of a praying and trembling eldership, may attempt to trace the steps of the divine Husband of Israel toward the tragedy of divorce, but not with anything less than the utmost of caution and humility.

It is Good to be Near God: a Thought on the Day After Inauguration Day, 2017

It is now the day after Inauguration Day.

I watched many of the festivities on television yesterday.  I was struck by a weird feeling unlike anything I know how to label.  On the one hand, despite my Anabaptist persuasions, I felt the (beautiful?) ceremonial solemnity of the occasion.  On the other, I was awash once again in the realization of the depths of degradation this country has reached.  A very strange combination of feelings, to be sure.

This morning, when I awoke, I saw that Desiring God had published an article by John Piper titled “How to Live Under an Unqualified President.”  Also, they posted the prayer that Dr. Piper prayed for the new president.  Both are excellent, and I commend them both to all.

Two elements of these materials stand out to me at this time.  The first is that Piper prayed that the Lord would grant repentance to President Trump but noted that this would be quite a miracle, since Trump is a proud rich man, and it is exceedingly hard for such people to enter the kingdom.  But he also recalled that when the Lord expressed how difficult it was for a rich man to enter, He followed by saying, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  I thought about how it might be good for believers to pray for this president, picturing with a holy imagination what a glorious thing it would be for the Lord truly to grant him repentance—not the phony stuff focused on by the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr.—but real repentance.  With God it is possible.  But for now, we have a president who has said that he has never asked for forgiveness from God or anyone else.

Second, the article also highlights the fact that this new president is egregiously far from being anything that anyone in this country can point to as an example to young people.  As Piper puts it, “Few parents would say to their young people: strive to be like Donald Trump. That is a great sadness.”  Indeed, it is.  But even worse is what Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Oval Office actively teaches.  The message is clear:  There is no disqualification of leadership based on moral grounds.  If we think that the young people of this country are not getting that message loud and clear, we will find we are sadly mistaken.  They now know that a horrible moral track record—even when multiplied by a brazenly unrepentant hubris—is not sufficient to keep a person from occupying the highest office of the land.  How do parents, grandparents, teachers, youth pastors and others who work to lead young people these days explain the moral lessons of the Trump presidency?  Will they not be tempted to think that there is no point in following the way of Jesus and desiring and pursuing purity of heart?

I took a few moments to feel the concussive force of these thoughts.  Then I spent some time reading and praying over Psalm 73.  Here it is:

A PSALM OF ASAPH.

Truly God is good to Israel,
To those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
My steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 For they have no pangs until death;
Their bodies are fat and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are;
They are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
Violence covers them as a garment.
7 Their eyes swell out through fatness;
Their hearts overflow with follies.
8 They scoff and speak with malice;
Loftily they threaten oppression.
9 They set their mouths against the heavens,
And their tongue struts through the earth.
10 Therefore His people turn back to them,
And find no fault in them.
11 And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Behold, these are the wicked;
Always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean
And washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all the day long I have been stricken
And rebuked every morning.
15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.
16 But when I thought how to understand this,
It seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
Then I discerned their end.
18 Truly You set them in slippery places;
You make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment,
Swept away utterly by terrors!
20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord,
When You rouse yourself, You despise them as phantoms.
21 When my soul was embittered,
When I was pricked in heart,
22 I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward You.
23 Nevertheless, I am continually with You;
You hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward You will receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart
And my portion forever.
27 For behold, those who are far from You shall perish;
You put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to You.
28 But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge,
That I may tell of all Your works.

Wrestling with Race on MLK, Jr. Day

It is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

More this year than ever before, I find myself genuinely desiring to observe this day.  And more than ever before, I find myself perplexed and dismayed at the seeming impossibility of getting any observance right.  How does someone like me, a forty-seven year old white guy with only a small handful of relationships with people of color and nothing like a real clue about the actual experience of African Americans, rightly observe a holiday honoring someone like Dr. King and all he stood for?

I have decided to observe the day by taking a bit of time to share some of my pained ponderings.  To those who might wish to upbraid me for posting such thoughts as these on MLK, Jr. Day, I simply pose this:  Maybe you’re right.  Maybe it’s indecorous of me to choose this day, of all the days of the year, to air these thoughts.  I don’t know.  And that’s kind of the point.  But right or wrong, I have chosen to take a portion of this day to wrestle publically with my ongoing difficulties in this area.  I am observing MLK, Jr. Day by trying to deal with the thorny issue of race in my own heart and in the arena of relationships.  How are you observing this day?

In a recent course on 20th century theology, I have had the opportunity to gain more exposure to different liberation theologies, including Black Theology.  James Cone, who still occupies the Charles A. Briggs chair of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, began writing books of black theology in the late 1960s.  I find his work to be fascinating and provocative in mostly good ways.  For me, at least, there is no scandal in his assertions like “God is black” and “Jesus is the black Christ.”  I understand his point.  More than that, when he says that the only hope for white people in America is for them to “become black,” my response is to say that I would be glad to.  If I understand him correctly, Cone means by this ‘becoming black’ a forsaking of power and a total identification with the oppressed.  That is nothing less than biblical.  It is the calling of all who would follow the incarnate Son of God.

But Cone and others end up asking too much, it seems to me.  I will explain below.  But first, let me offer some thoughts about my struggle to get a handle on the so-called ‘race issue.’

Recently I saw a few minutes of a sitcom in which a white couple and a black couple were making an effort to spend time together and get to know each other.  The conversation began to get painfully awkward along race lines, and in order to defuse it a bit, the white woman mentioned something about liking the movie “The Help.”  Then one of the black folks said something to the effect of, “Yeah, wasn’t it great how that pretty white girl started the Civil Rights movement?”

Ouch.  How does a white person rightly respond to that?  There is, of course, no such thing as a non-response.  It seems that there is nothing one could do or say—including nothing—that would be the right response.

One wrong response—but one perhaps worth offering anyway—might be to observe the fact that the movie could not have been produced without the willing participation of a number of black actors (and presumably others).  The same can be said of practically any such endeavor.  Perhaps such things as “The Help” should be seen as goofy attempts at white goodness which really just serve to expose how deeply racist we whites really are.  In our misguided attempts to be good white people, we cast ourselves as magnanimously and heroically non-racist.  That is a stinging rebuke, one that does not miss its target with me.

But implicit in such criticism is the idea that we should have known better.  And I can’t help wondering whether the same may be said of the black people who participated in the movie.  I do not mean to commit the tu quoque fallacy (Latin for “you too,” a dismissing someone’s argument by pointing out their hypocrisy).  My point is that, if there is an “Oops—what was I thinking?” to be uttered, it seems that it should be uttered by more than just the white people involved.  And maybe—just maybe—it might be admitted that, while there truly is a foolish white blindness that results in unhelpful gestures like the utterance “all lives matter,” such sapiential failures are not the sole demesne of white folks.

This summer, the website of the Gospel Coalition hosted a piece titled “When God Sends Your Daughter a Black Husband” by a blogger named Gaye Clark.  I never got to read the piece, because it was removed (at Clark’s request) before I became aware of it.  But there has been a great deal of discussion in its wake.  For those who might be interested, here are a few pieces of the discussion:

The address of the original article, offering a link to a discussion about it.

The link of the actual discussion: “A Controversial Article and What We Can Learn”

A news story about it.

A different blogger’s interesting take on it.

Thabiti Anyabwile’s reflection on it.

Apparently, in the article, Clark talked about the surprise she experienced when her daughter announced her engagement to a young black man.  She was happy to say that her son-in-law-to-be was a committed Christian and that that was all that really mattered.  But she also wrote honestly about her… shall we say, unpreparedness for the surprise.  Perhaps the most controversial sentence in the article was, “Glenn moved from being a black man to beloved son when I saw his true identity as an image bearer of God, a brother in Christ, and a fellow heir to God’s promises.”

It seems that a maelstrom of argument followed in the comments section of the post.  Obviously, some people were upset by the inherent racism.  But death threats apparently came from white supremacists who were angry that Clark was okay with her daughter marrying a black man.  She ended up writing a brief apology and asking TGC to remove the article, which they did.

I listened to the discussion between Jason Cook, Isaac Adams and Jemar Tisby, three African American Christians, reflectively responding to the article and the fallout that ensued from it.  They dealt with the sentence quoted above, pointing out that it reveals that Clark sees her son-in-law’s blackness as something to get over.  This and many other points made by these brothers are painful but necessary and helpful.

But one of the things that comes out in the discussion is that, before it was ever posted in the first place, the article was vetted by a number of people, including Clark’s son-in-law-to-be (who is said to have loved it) and Cook himself as an editor for TGC.  Cook briefly acknowledges that he too managed to miss the depth of the racially problematic message in the article.  But it seemed to me that the point was rather quickly set aside.

Now, there are several problems with my observations here about black people sometimes also missing the subtleties of inherent racism in such places as “The Help” and the Gaye Clark article.  First, one might rightly argue that it is not my place, as a white guy, to make that observation—that my job is to own my own white issues.  This leads to the second problem, namely that such an observation might just serve as a convenient distraction from the main issue.  That would, indeed, be a rather gross instance of the tu quoque fallacy.  And of course, there is the basic question of just how helpful it is to the over all conversation to make such an observation.

But my point in making it is not to change the subject or to avoid responsibility or to evade any appropriate white guilt.  My intent is certainly not polemical at all.  My point is to say that I want to think rightly and truly about race.  But if it is so difficult to think clearly that well-intentioned white people and well-intentioned black people can easily miss the mark, I’m going to need some help and some patience from those who are ahead of me in “getting” it.

The other day I remarked to a friend (another white guy like me) that I had thought of coining the phrase “Jim Dove laws” as a term for what I see coming in the not too distant future: legal persecutions of Christians somewhat resembling the Jim Crow laws which make up so much of America’s cruel history toward black people.  But I hadn’t actually used the phrase anywhere until I mentioned it to my friend, because I knew there was something wrong with it.  Mostly, I had thought of “being misunderstood” and looking like I was being insensitive toward the actual plight of African Americans by comparing it  to the discomforts of evangelical Christians in an increasingly secularizing culture.

My friend pointed out what I already knew was the case, though.  It wasn’t just a matter of being misunderstood as insensitive.  It was insensitive.  How could I even seriously entertain the idea of such a comparison?  The fact is that I did.  A worse fact is that the right word for that insensitivity is “racism.”

While I am not some skinhead or KKK member, I am a sinner who has insidious strains of racism in his heart.

One of the problems of the discussions of racism among white people, including Christians, is that racism is too often defined as active, aggressive meanness toward people of other races.  There is not enough acknowledgment of the “soft” racism that inheres in all of our hearts.  For example, why is there some little part of my psyche that thinks it kind of cool of me that I treat a minority person just the same as any white person?  Is there something especially good about me when I am kind toward a black person?  Is it magnanimous of me?  Usually such ideas are only present in me in the form of deeply embedded feelings.  I don’t sit there consciously patting myself on the back for not being racist.  But the latent notions are there.  And I must be honest and call them what they are: racism.

Some months ago, I heard the story of a black pastor in Canada whose wife begs him not to go out to the store at night, not because he might encounter criminals but because he might encounter the police.  Other brothers in Christ who are pastors, scholars, theologians, testify of the daily experience of having white people, especially women subtly shrink away from them on the street or in other public places.  I have no idea of how to respond to that other than to shut my mouth and listen, to try—somehow—to join them in their pain through prayer and my God-given powers of imagination, thinking of how awful that must be.

And of course, there is no denying that, in more than a few cases, this racial xenophobia reaches lethal levels.  If I get pulled over by the police, I am liable to feel annoyed, but I don’t generally worry that it might be the end of my life.

This brings me to another thought.  Most of what attaches to me as so-called “white privilege” is negative in nature.  That is, because I am white, I do not experience certain unpleasant things such as being tailed by security when I walk through a store.  But as far as I can tell, there is not much in terms of positive privilege.  Being white certainly does not mean that doors just swing open for me in life.

And come to think of it, there is such a thing as a white experience which is also unpleasant and which it might be fair to say is something the black person does not share.  It is the converse to the black experience that the white person does not share.  Black people, it seems, cannot know what it is like to be a member of an ethnic majority which is expected to feel guilty for being such.

Many years ago, when I was pizza delivery driver, I had a somewhat disquieting experience on a delivery to a certain apartment.  A young black man opened the door, and we began the normal of exchange pizza for money.  In the background of the room a young black woman suddenly yelled at me, “Hey!  Can you deliver me some watermelon?!”  I was terribly flustered and just tried to pass it off with a nervous laugh.  The young man was merciful and turned to her and told her to shut up, then turned back to me and said, “Sorry.”  As far as I know, my discomfort—and that is putting it mildly—is a distinctively white experience.

Now I must hasten to say that the experience of white guilt, white awkwardness or embarrassment, the burden of actual white racial badness—none of this comes anywhere close to off-setting or comparing to the real pain of the black experience in America or the appropriate indignation that black people feel.  I make no comparisons of scale—or even of kind—between these special white and black experiences.

Moreover, I know that some black people, in hearing the expression of quandary and confusion by white people over not knowing what to do, have responded by saying it is good and appropriate for white people to feel it.  And in general, I think they are probably right.  It is certainly fair for black people, as a group, to feel less than sympathetic toward the awkward and embarrassing struggle of white people as we try to figure out how in the world to be good and right in relation to them.  Maybe it’s really a good problem, healing to black folks in one way and to white folks in another.

But all of this tempts me to despair.  It seems to set us all up for a hopeless separation of races.  Black experience and white experience, and therefore, black people and white people, seem to be separated by water-tight bulkheads.  Can we ever come together?

I know that it is almost inappropriate for a white man to be the one to ask that question.  I know that it must be black people who say when racial tensions are over and forgiveness and reconciliation have done their work so that no more worry is needed.  And I get that, in expressing a desire for that time to hurry and arrive, I may be guilty of trying to forestall the necessary process of going through what we must go through—perpetrator race and victim race—together.  (By the way, if you think it is silly to use such terms, you are probably white and have not really come to grips with the realities of the history of race in America.  The phenomenon of African slavery alone is unparalleled in human history in terms of scope and cruelty.)  Yet I cannot help it.

Matters may be further complicated by the fact that there are some ideas communicated from people like Dr. Cone with which I simply cannot agree.  Again, if I understand him correctly, he takes the force of his black theology to places which are just a bit too far.  It seems that I am asked to recast the gospel as being essentially about the black experience, not just including it.  It is not enough, it seems, to see the suffering of Jesus as including the horrors of the black experience in American history; we are expected to see them as one and the same.  It amounts to a black exclusion of white people somewhat like Jewish exclusion of Gentiles.  And at that point, it goes too far.

I am confident that Dr. King would say so.  (And yes, I know that white people are not supposed to invoke Dr. King.)  He had no desire to see the Lord Jesus and His cross, which is for all people equally, eclipsed by or subsumed under the Civil Rights movement.  He would not tell me that my being white means I can only approach God through the mercies of black people and then take my seat in the outer court.

I am more than glad to look at a black brother and say, “For too long, you and those of your ethnicity have languished under the cruel burden of white hegemony.  I realize that there is something terribly inappropriate about the idea that it is sufficient simply to announce a leveling of the field after several centuries of mistreatment.  I agree that it would be totally fitting and maybe therapeutic for all, for the shoe to be on the other foot for some period.  And I am willing to go through that passage.”

But I cannot agree to a theology of reversal which makes anyone, even us white people, ultimately second-class citizens of the kingdom of God.  I do not know what Dr. Cone would say now, but that is how I read his work of four or five decades ago; and that is an extreme to which I just cannot go with him.

Well, these have been long-winded thoughts on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I do not have any greater clarity than I did when first began writing them.  But maybe now that I have put them here, I may have the benefit of some good help form others in wrestling with them.

Meanwhile, I look forward to this:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;  and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
— Revelation 7:9-10

Hymn for Epiphany

Ye who walk in darkness here,
Ye who languish in the vale,
See! The Light of God comes near!
Know that grace shall yet prevail!

God, His promise to unveil,
He to save the perishing,
Ends now Israel’s long travail,
He who bears her suffering.

Sages, come, your gifts to bring,
Thinking not of your largesse.
Learn that He’s the King of kings.
It is you who will be blessed!

Of your pride yourselves divest,
Your anxieties and fears.
Come to Him! He bids you rest,
He who bottles up your tears.

He proclaims to them with ears
Of the kingdom in His wake.
‘Tis the King who now appears
With a kingdom naught can shake.

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